More Statue Ethics: the King Memorial Controversy
Yes, there is another statue controversy.
This one involves the choice of a statue’s sculptor, specifically the Chinese artist whose design was selected by the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial Project Foundation to become a major monument to the martyred civil rights leader in Washington, D.C. The Washington Post reports that some critics are outraged that the creator of King’s memorial isn’t an African-American, or at least an American. Others are angry that the artist is a citizen of communist China. A man named Gilbert Young has launched a website, www.kingisours.com, to provide a forum for those who want the choice of sculptor to be overturned.
In its defense, the Foundation points out that the commission that selected prominent Chinese artist Lei Yixin was predominantly made up of African-Americans, and that Lei is working closely with painter Jon Onye Lockard and sculptor Ed Hamilton, both of whom are African-American. But Young and his many allies are not mollified. His passionate statement on the website is unequivocal:
In analyzing ethical quandaries, usually the most useful threshold question is “What is really going on here?” It is tempting to conclude that what’s going on in this instance is veiled racism and maybe not even veiled. Young’s website’s name, “kingisours” is certainly strong evidence of this. Martin Luther King’s life’s mission was to end bigotry and discrimination, and to ensure that the culture of America, and not merely the nation’s Constitution, embraced the principle that every individual should be judged on his or her qualities as a human being, not by race, skin color, or ethnicity. King was black, but he certainly doesn’t “belong” to blacks, any more than Gandhi and Mother Theresa belong to whites. National monuments in Washington honor the nation’s heroes, not icons of particular interest groups. If what’s going on here is the assertion that only an African-American artist should sculpt an image of an African-American citizen who made major contributions to his country—that an Asian or foreign-born artist cannot—then the ethics verdict is clear and damning. If this is their argument, then Lei’s critics want to defy King’s principles while supposedly honoring them. If there is any revered national figure for whom the race of a sculptor shouldn’t matter, it is Martin Luther King. In fact, it shouldn’t matter for any national figure.
But wait; let us not be hasty. If one goes to Young’s on-line petition, there is this comment by “B. Fargo,” who writes, “It is ludicrous that Dr King’s monument could be built in a country where slave labor is status quo.” Is it “ludicrous?” It is undoubtedly ironic. Still, the artist is not responsible for human rights violations in his country. Do we really want to enforce a formula by which artists are only permitted to make artistic statements that are consistent with their home country’s policies? That doesn’t make sense at all.
All right, then: what about the argument of others on the website that hiring a foreign artist is “outsourcing” an American job overseas? As Young says in his own statement, other nations haven’t been willing to entrust the immortalization of their heroes to African-Americans, so why is the Foundation giving the honor of immortalizing King to a Chinese artist? This objection relies on even weaker ethical logic than the previous one. This is a work of art we are talking about, not a contract to manufacture Mattel toys. All that matters with a work of art is the art itself, not the nationality of the artist or the politics of his or her homeland. The Foundation was wise to leave the increasingly dubious logic of affirmative action out of the design choice, thereby rejecting an approach that would contradict King’s words and legacy.
Young points to the choices of sculptors for monuments in other nations as if the United States should be influenced by practices abroad. The fact that other nations behave a certain way does not constitute an argument that America or Americans should behave the similarly; this is the illicit rationalization “everybody does it” on a grand scale. Many American values and traditions constitute a rejection of the accepted attitudes and values of other nations. Racial equality, in fact, is one of those American values. Young asks why the King Monument should be any different from the monuments in other nations. The answer is, simply, that America is different.
This country has never been especially concerned about the nationality or race of those who design our monuments. One of the most prominent statues of George Washington stands in the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond and has a replica in downtown Washington D.C. It was created by French sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon. Another native of France, Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi, designed the most celebrated American statue of all, the Statue of Liberty. Among the most visited and most effective memorials in Washington is the Viet Nam Memorial, designed by American artist Maya Lin. Not only is she Asian and of Chinese ancestry, her aunt was Lin Huiyin, a famous Red Chinese architect. Is it “ludicrous” that this memorial to slain American soldiers was designed by an artist whose recent ancestors came from the very same nation that made the weapons that killed them?
No. It is just American.
One can sympathize with Young and others who wish the King monument could be crafted by a member of the oppressed group he fought for. King doesn’t “belong” to African-Americans, but he was an African-American, and the connection felt by African-Americans toward him and his achievements is uniquely personal. But it isn’t unusual for racism and bias to be fueled by genuine emotions and personal experience. All the other arguments against Lei designing the memorial have arisen to bolster the basic racist premise that only an African-American should sculpt Dr. King’s statue. The argument is unfair to Lei and unworthy of King.